The 2016 Breakneck Point Trail Marathon by Ben Nephew "On Being a Coxswain"

After a year of running with the MPF RNR team, I was excited to return to the place where it all began, the one and only Breakneck Point Marathon. A local runner from NH, Lars Blackmore, posted a couple rowing pictures recently, and it got me to think about the similarities between running and crew teams. About 22 years ago I was recruited to help out the crew team at Hobart College as a coxswain, and it led to some of the best memories of college, and my wife. I was going to write something specific about running and being a coxswain, but I’m really busy right now, so I’ll just combine it with my race report.

For the sake of chronological order, we will start with my experience as a coxswain. I’m a competitive guy, so the initial thought of sitting idly while 8 men in front of me gave their all was not appealing; I thought I would hate it. In addition, I was still running road races in the spring (we had no track team), and a crew schedule is not conducive to doing anything else, including living. I didn’t like it at all, I loved it. While at times I wanted badly to grab an oar and try and rip my arms off, the opportunity to have a front row seat to the effort involved in intense crew practices and races was amazing. In addition to being able to witness such intense effort, I quickly felt that I could make a difference in terms of both motivation and technical coaching. It took me a while to really learn the technical aspects of the sport, but most coxswains are not athletes, and my teams seemed to appreciate my perspective as a fellow athlete. Finally, what I may miss most is the sensation of being in a skilled boat of 8 dedicated athletes that work as one. I cannot think of better definition of flow; the perfectly synchronized expression of power, and I have not come close to recreating it. Being that close to the surface of the water, the sensation of pure speed is intensified. At full speed, the hull ripping through the water sounds just like cooking bacon. At times I was privileged to be in boats that had such good balance that they could take 10 strokes and hold the oars up out of the water for over two minutes until the boat came to a complete stop, which seems impossible in a 60 foot long boat that is 16 inches wide. When that level of skill is combined with the fitness of years of 12 workout weeks, the type of bond that many families strive for, and an unhealthy degree of competitive intensity, well, it was extraordinary.             

Once you get out of college, running tends to be an individual sport. Moving to the Boston region, I was fortunate to be part of the Greater Boston Track Club and the Central Mass Striders for many years. As I grew away from the roads and shorter races, though, I missed the team aspects of running. With joining MPF RNR, I definitely have that back. Despite the geographical challenges, everyone makes efforts to get together for the RNR races or crazy training runs or weekends. In the past year, the vast majority of my races have involved a considerable amount of quality time running with teammates (sometimes too much time!). In some races, it has been like being in a boat, as one of us will take up the position of stroke and lead the way through a difficult section of trail while another will steer from behind and let the man in front know he blew a turn. Sometimes words of encouragement are shared, and at other times nothing needs to be said as we know we are in the same boat of pain.

Breakneck this year was the 1 year celebration of the birth of our trail family, which continues to grow in terms of both the team and Breakneck race fields. After too much socializing and a lack of race prep, Ian got us started up the first long climb to the ridge. I was a little too cold and excited for the first half mile, but settled down to run with Iain and Ryan. I was jealous of all the half runners who could afford to be more aggressive with their pace. We made good time up the climb and were soon making our way to Sugarloaf Mountain, as Matt Lipsey roared by after missing a turn early on. Adam Russell went by on the descent to the base of Breakneck Ridge, and a whole pile of us were together on the climb. This is one of the most amazing trails anywhere, and never disappoints. There were 2-3 instances where I almost lost my grip (with my hands) and fell back onto Adam or Ryan. While Ryan wanted a faster pace up the scramble, I think we may have covered the climb faster than the half guys.

On the next descent, I guess I was feeling creative as I picked some very unorthodox lines down the broken shoulder of the ridge. We managed to mostly stay on trail, and Adam once again pulled away on the lower section. The old carriage road was covered at sub 6 minute pace, and the lead group was down to the three of us and Jed Sheckler. Adam was climbing strong, and it took a while for Ryan, Jed, and I to catch up to him, with Iain a few steps back. The pace was solid, so I felt no need to try and pace and force the issue, we climbed Bull Hill, descended, and climbed back up to Breakneck Ridge. Adam once again plunged downhill off the ridge at an impressive speed on some rugged terrain. I almost took a massive spill when my left foot got tangled up in a vine where I had to kick it free in mid-air before sacrificing myself on a pile of jagged rocks.

After the third aid station at the base of Sugarloaf, we had to jump across a brook and I felt my inner hamstring start to cramp. At 13.4 miles, it was way too early for that, not good. While some of it was due to over striding on the jump, I was still concerned. I hit the salt and tried to stay relaxed as Ryan and I chased Adam up the hill. Adam was running strong, and Ryan was not able to bridge the gap by the time we went up and over Sugarloaf. I hung on as Adam flew downhill and was surprised to hear a cheer from Steph off to the side as my eyes were glued to the trail. She seemed to be doing well, which was great to see considering she was still recovering from an ankle sprain.

I was sad that we had pulled away from Ryan and Iain, and at the same time wondered if I was going to pay for this pace later. It was sad to see our MPF RNR pair with coxswain break up, and I hoped that Ryan and Iain would be able to rejoin us. Adam finally backed off a bit, and we started to talk about our families and his farm, where he produces 2700 gallons of maple syrup. I think that requires about a billion gallons of sap. He mentioned that he does most of his running on dirt roads, and I thought that he does pretty well on technical downhills for a road runner! While we had just met, we soon turned into a team of two, where it was us versus the Breakneck course. Just as my confidence was building, we hit the 16 mile aid station, and there was no Coke. I tried not to panic, but I think Amy Hanlon could sense the fear in my voice, so she filled me up with Tailwind. I’ve never had Tailwind before, but it was getting hot and I likely needed the water and the calories. The Tailwind and Coke combo was not bad! The cramps in my hamstrings had started to return, so I grabbed another S cap, bit it, and rubbed salt all over my gums like an addict.

We both struggled up the steep mile up to Beacon and dove down into the undulating Fishkill Ridge. I really enjoy this section, and started to gradually pull away from Adam, mostly on the climbs. They are small climbs, but the trail is incessantly technical and the combination is tiring at this stage in the race. The downhill coming off of Fishkill is pretty vicious; steep, broken, tight singletrack covered in jagged rock. I blew a couple of tight turns, but managed not to maim myself despite a couple close calls. I was able to stride out on the way down to the last aid station where the trail travelled along a stream. Refilling with Coke was like seeing an old friend, and I set off on the 1400’ climb back up Beacon convinced I was going to crush. Things went well on the up and down initial section, which was encouraging. As I reached the main part of the climb, where I had been telling myself I could run, both quads started to cramp, so I hiked.

This course is a beast. I was a worried about Adam reeling me in, but everyone would probably be hurting in a similar fashion, so I trudged on. The worst part was the sad pace I ran on the flat section close to the summit. My legs were shot, and I became concerned about the ledges I would have to descend on the way to the finish. Thankfully, descending uses very different muscles, and my legs felt much better once the trail headed down. It was still a rough descent, but Tammany had certainly hardened up my quads in preparation for this race. Considering Adam’s cannon-like downhill speed, I was still worried about being caught through the 2.5 miles to the finish, which did not feel as downhill as I had hoped at times. Despite not having Iain there to chase me down, I was not able to crank the pace down to 3:21, but I did manage 4:13 into the finish at 5:04. Adam came storming in at 5:14, with Jed at 5:28 for third and Iain and Ryan in 4th and 5th in the low 5:30’s. The women’s race was won by Natalie Thompson in an impressive 5:54, and it was great to see my friend Sheryl Wheeler finish strongly for 2nd place.              

Another great Red Newt Racing event, thanks to the many volunteers that made it possible, including many of my MPF RNR teammates, our running crew! It was exciting to see the event double in size compared to last year, and a special treat was having many of my favorite RD’s on the course, Ian, Charlie Gadol, and Dick Vincent. Congratulations to everyone who survived such a wicked course!